Interview with Florida Aikidoka George Kenneth Clark: Aikido and Seminars

A martial artist for more than sixty years, Florian aikido George Clark discusses aikido seminars and one memorable event with Kisshomaru Ueshiba at the Aikido Center of Atlanta in 1974. All images provided by George Clark.

Martial Arts of Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow: Welcome back Clark Sensei! Thank you for returning for another discussion on aikido!

George Clark: I would like to thank you for inviting me to a second interview and I look forward to your questions!

MAYTT: By the mid-1970s, how did you see aikido growing from its first major introduction to the United States in the 1960s? Was there a noticeable difference not only in the participation but in training standards and overall energy of the art?

GC: I remember the 1970s as a time of growth for aikido in the Florida. There were not a lot of established aikido dojos but the enthusiasm and level of participation was high. Still in the growing stage and without many higher ranked sensei to learn from, we struggled to make the techniques work. I would say that the level of training was very physical in comparison to that of today and looked more like aikijujutsu than aikido. Injuries were common and most aikidoka felt that was just a part of training.

MAYTT: Was there a lot of “mystical magic” at the time surrounding the art even for early American participants? Or was this more on the part of an outsiders’ observation? How did aikidoka address this type of stereotype?

GC: Aikido has always had a mystical magic associated with its practice. Much of this came from the many superhuman accomplishments and super natural stories about Morihei Ueshiba, considered to be the founder of aikido. His great strength was talked about and many felt that he could dodge bullets. His ability to evade and suppress any number of attackers just added to this mystique. These ideas and feelings rose to the surface during parties and get-togethers but not during training.

MAYTT: During that time, Second Doshu Kisshomaru Ueshiba made several seminar tours throughout the United States. Did you attend any of these early seminars and, if so, which one(s) specifically? What were your overall thoughts on the event? From your point of view, how was it attended and received by the American aikidoka community?

GC: One evening during training Edward Baker Sensei said that Waka Sensei (a term used for Kisshomaru Ueshiba meaning “Baby Sensei.” Not in a bad way but also not said to him personally) was coming to Atlanta, Georgia for a seminar. Baker Sensei had an old pick up truck with a camper top and six or seven of us piled in and headed for Rodney Grantham’s Black Belt dojo in Atlanta. The trip took about seven hours but was well worth it. We trained all weekend and were so excited to study and talk with Kisshomaru Ueshiba and many others that came for the seminar. I really wish that I could remember everyone that attended but that was a long time ago. I know that Yoshimitsu Yamada and Mitsunari Kanai were both there. I remember being very impressed with Morito Suganuma who came with Doshu to uke for him. During the seminar, Doshu applied a yonkyo technique on me that I still remember today. As his small boney fingers applied pressure, my entire arm went numb. Funny the things you remember [Laughs] Suganama was powerful, smooth, and very flexible. I feel very fortunate to have had the privilege of attending and training at this seminar.

George Clark demonstrating at a dojo in Florida.

MAYTT: I sounded like it was an amazing time! Speaking of attendance, did aikidoka from all over the country flock to those early seminars or was each seminar more of a reflection of the practitioners from their respective regions primarily?

GC: Generally speaking, most aikidoka seemed to attend seminars that were in their respective states. At that time, seminars were not expensive but also not held on a regular basis. In many cases, senior aikido sensei from an area would plan a seminar so that testing could be done. This allowed for a better attendance and training with others form different dojos and backgrounds. There were larger seminars planned a couple times a year so that Yoshimitsu Yamada could visit and teach.

MAYTT: From those seminars, what was the most enduring lesson that you walked away with that seemingly had you looking at what you were doing from a different perspective? 

GC: My beginnings were with karate including a year of study on Miyakojima, Okinawa. My body had become rigid with a tendency to use muscular strength rather than technique to complete many aikido techniques. My perspective changed through practice and attending seminars where I consistently heard “RELAX” and “Extend ki.” This statement came from many different sources until it finally began to sink into my thick skull. From that point on, my aikido seemed to change for the better and I began understand the meaning of blending and harmony. I would like to thank all those aikidoka that took an interest in helping me to progress in aikido.

MAYTT: In your opinion, how did these seminars and others like them, serve as a way to establish networks of communication between aikidoka within their respective regions and beyond? Did you find there was a strong level of camaraderie among practitioners, even with those whom you did not know?

GC: Seminars afforded people to meet deshi from different locations, dojos, and styles. Many lasting friendships were formed and exchanges of information and techniques were shared. I encourage attending seminars and also cross training to help you stay motivated and increase your martial arts knowledge. Because someone performs a movement or technique differently from you does not make it wrong only different. Aikido is an art meant to become one’s own and should be viewed as such. That does not mean that basic principles and concepts that make aikido what it is should be ignored. This is the principle of shu-ha-ri.

MAYTT: I see. Was there a level of unity that existed during that time that is not as prevalent today as many have suggested?

GC: I think that many of the strong bonds formed in the 1970s are still alive, especially for those of us that are still active. At seventy-three years old, I maintain contact with many martial artists that I met at seminars or trained with years ago. It has become much easier to do with all the new media outlets to choose from. I do believe that many of today’s students use martial arts as a hobby or athletic outlet and are looking for something specific to their needs. Until the arts are looked on as a lifetime study, many aspects will become lost and the art itself will eventually become a shell of what once was.

MAYTT: Do you feel that those early seminars helped solidify the art’s place within the United States and, if so, do you still feel that such events today hold true to maintaining a foundation for the art’s existence and lineage? Are they still vital?

GC: Yes, I feel seminars play a vital role in helping aikido to reach its full potential. Having the experience to train with new people and study with new teachers only broadens one’s knowledge of aikido. Seminars also create an atmosphere of excitement that helps students as well as teachers to refocus their training and study. Some of aikido’s major organizations now hold summer and winter camps that last about a week. In the old days, seminars usually began with a Friday evening session. Saturday was a full day, with a party in the evening. Sunday was only morning classes. I personally liked the parties the best [Laughs]

MAYTT: Parties have always had a flair to them! Could you briefly discuss what the aikido seminar scene was like back then? Were they an essential function within the art and what aspects of seminars have changed since then?

GC: I answered this question within the previous question but will continue by saying seminars usually stress the educate and symbolic manners of aikido more than everyday training at your home dojo. No one wants to embarrass themselves or their sensei by acting or performing in an unacceptable manner. Truth be told, many times the students are unaware that their behaviors are unacceptable because they haven’t been taught proper courtesy.  Seminars help in this area of study.

MAYTT: Did you look forward to such events not only to further your training but to have an opportunity to work with a particular person or group of practitioners who you otherwise would not have the chance to?

GC: Yes, I try to attend a few seminars each year. I enjoy cross training, so I visit classes and seminars with other martial arts as well as aikido. At my age, I limit my mat time. In many cases, I will attend functions to watch and socialize. After all these years, seminars still act as a motivational tool for me. Again, I always liked the parties the best [Laughs]

George Clark with Mitsugi Saotome after a seminar in 2014.

MAYTT: In regard to those seminars, who were you surprised to see in attendance and was there anyone who especially remember meeting and got to know specifically through the events?

GC: I would have to say that would be Stanley Pranin. I attended a seminar in south Florida at Stephanie Yap’s dojo some time ago. This was a seminar with Hirohiro Saito and aikidoka from California, Nevada, and Canada were in attendance. I remember one hundred people training on a matted area that almost covered an entire basketball court. Stanley and I talked throughout the weekend and we became friends. I later visited him at his home dojo in Las Vegas, Nevada. Pranin Sensei was a remarkable person. Besides being one of the most knowledgeable historians in the world on aikido, he spoke five languages.

MAYTT: It is incredible that you have that memory with Stanley Pranin! You mentioned in a recent Facebook post that through one of the Kisshomaru Ueshiba seminars, you met Rodney Grantham, an aikido pioneer in the Southeast. At which seminar did you first meet him first and what was your initial impression of him and his aikido?

GC: I believe it 1974. Kisshomaru Ueshiba came to the US and did a tour. He visited Sensei Grantham’s dojo on Peachtree St. in Atlanta Georgia. That was the only time that I saw him so I really can’t comment much other than he seemed very polite. We may have interacted on the tatami a little but truthfully, I don’t recall. I feel sure that his concern at the time was to make sure everything went smoothly for Nidai Doshu.

MAYTT: Was Grantham one of those particular people you looked forward to train with at regional seminars or was the meeting more happenstance?

GC: Unfortunately, we never had the opportunity to train together again.

MAYTT: In your opinion, how do you see Grantham’s efforts have influenced aikido and its growth in the Southeastern region of the United States? Do you feel that influence also went beyond into other regions of the US as well?

GC: Grantham Sensei had a strong dojo, noted primarily for judo but also had an aikido following. His contributions to these arts helped them both to grow and flourish in the Atlanta area. During this time, martial arts training seemed limited to smaller self-contained areas close to the dojo. Even today, few students are willing to drive long distances for class. This further shows the need for seminars to bring these smaller groups together for an exchange of techniques and knowledge.

MAYTT: Final question. As we move closer to a post-COVID society, how do you think seminars will change? Will there be a demand for such events and in-person gatherings when many instructors and organizations have proceeded with virtual alternatives?

GC: I can’t believe that virtual classes will ever replace person-to-person training. This is similar to saying that you can watch a video and become an expert. Many dojos have already reopened and are back to a modified class using masks and social distancing when possible. I feel that most people are ready for seminars to begin again and basically want the interaction both physical and social. No one wants to get infected or unknowingly infect others with this virus, so until this pandemic is over, this virtual band aid will have to stay on.

MAYTT: Thank you again for illuminating aikido’s past in the Southeastern region of the United States!

GC: I would like to thank you again for inviting me to a second interview and also thank you for the many aikidoka that follow your research into the history of aikido and other related arts. The martial arts world lost a great person and researcher when Stanley Pranin left us. You and Josh Gold have done much to fill this void and we all hope that you will continue to present more information to the martial arts community each day.

To find out more about aikido and its history in America, click here.

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